Defense

November 18, 2013

DARPA focuses on technology for national security

Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

Projects undertaken by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency may have some immediate applications, but what program managers there really look to do is blow open new sets of opportunities from deep research, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said Nov. 14.

Speaking to a large audience at the Defense One Summit and to viewers online, the electrical engineer with a doctorate in applied physics described DARPA-funded work underway to help the war fighter in information technology and brain function.

ìOur focus is always breakthrough technologies for national security. We want to show that radically new things are going to be possible,î Prabhakar told interviewer Barbara Starr of CNN.

ìI also think this is a great example of much broader societal issues that come up when youíre working at the forefront of these kinds of technologies,î the director said, naming synthetic biology, new materials and privacy concerns related to ìbig dataî as DARPA research topics deserving of public debate.

For the warfighter on the ground today, DARPA research in information technology is more about using the kinds of capabilities readily available in civilian apps and smartphones in the combat theater, Prabhakar said. When soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan are trying to understand the local environment, she noted, they do that largely with paper maps.

Yes, we have a lot of information about whatís going on,î Prabhakar said, ìbut itís not down in the hands of the soldier.

In the last few years DARPA initiated a program called Transformative Apps that dealt with some of the hard security and other challenges of using Android smartphone technology in theater, Prabhakar said.

What we did essentially,î she explained, ìwas get these Android devices in the hands of soldiers who were going out on patrols every single day and gave them the ability to carry a lot of map data to know where they were, track what was going on in the local community, and share that information with each other.

But DARPA went further, the director added.

ìWeíve now got that ability in theater, so soldiers come back and say, ëThis really worked, I need this app. But what would be great would be this next capability.í And our developers are working with them in real time to develop those new apps, so our capability keeps growing,î Prabhakar said.

Soldiers tell DARPA that what would be useful for the next generation of capabilities are things like getting records of what other foot patrols find as they do their work and combining that information into a data picture, she said.

ìOr,î Prabhakar imitates a soldier explaining his or her needs: ëI talked to this farmer, and I found out what crops he was growing and I want to be able to track that. But now I have information I know I can hand off to the next patrol thatís coming in for the next period of time.í Those were the kinds of very pragmatic things that were extremely helpful once they got this basic tool,î she explained.

At the other end of the research spectrum, for the warfighter on the ground tomorrow and beyond, DARPA is funding research that combines its work in prosthetics and its research into brain function.

I think we’re just at the beginning of a very long and interesting journey,î Prabhakar said. There has been such an interesting set of advances in neuroscience in the last few years, and DARPA has started putting some of those advances to work.

Some of the work is driven by DARPA program manager and physician Dr. Geoffrey Ling, an Army colonel who retired last year and who has been working for several years with DARPA on prosthetics for wounded veterans, the director said.

ìGeoff returned from theater convinced that we had to find a way to advance prosthetics capabilities for our wounded veterans,î Prabhakar explained. Ling was trained as a neurointerventionist, she added, a surgical specialty in which doctors treat conditions and diseases such as cerebral aneurysms, head and neck tumors and strokes.

To him, the starting point was to understand the brain,î she said. ìHe launched a program that did two different things weíre now bringing together. One was to develop a very sophisticated prosthetic arm. The other was to do the animal work to understand where the signaling for motor control happens in the brain and how we can start using those signals to control the world around us.

Based on that work DARPA began human trials in the last year. One of the earliest patients was a longtime quadriplegic named Jan, Prabhakar said, describing how the woman volunteered to have a small array implanted on the surface of her brain.

At the conference, the director showed a video in which Jan, five months after surgery, used ports on the top of her head from which electrical signals are taken to use her thoughts to control a robotic arm linked to a computer.

In the video, Jan showed an amazed reporter that she could easily move the arm left and right, up and down, then shake his hand and even give him a fist bump as she sat smiling but motionless on the bed.

Can you imagine,î Prabhakar asked the audience, ìif we can do that kind of control of prosthetics — very natural, graceful control, not one finger at a time, but the way we move our limbs today? Then, as you start thinking about what weíre learning, think about how we might build all kinds of complex systems because of what we understand about how the human brain interacts with them.

Asked about applications of such technology beyond restoring lost limbs, the DARPA director recalled being on a Virginia-class submarine and watching its operation, which involved multiple large screens and interactive touch displays.

ìImagine if we could move beyond that in the future, without having ports on top of your head, but perhaps wirelessly going directly from brain signal to a very sophisticated level of control. Rather than pushing buttons on a screen or moving levers, being able to orchestrate a very complex system,î Prabhakar said.

That is the door that is opened by this kind of research,î she added, ìand frankly, itís both exhilarating and terrifying.

Still, she said, DARPA must continue to push the frontiers of technology.

That is literally our day job and our core mission,î she said. ìWe also try very hard to raise these broader ethical issues and societal issues, because well beyond the period of our research, society has some important choices to make.




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

Headlines April 14, 2014

Business: U.S. Navy looks to leverage submarine work to keep costs down - The U.S. Navy hopes to save money and time by leveraging industry investments as it replaces its Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines with the Virginia-class attack submarines now built by General Dynamics Corp and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.  Study raises red flags on California aerospace...
 
 

News Briefs April 14, 2014

U.S. Navy destroyer Zumwalt christened in Maine The U.S. Navy has christened the first ship of its newest class of destroyers, a 610-foot (186-meter)-long warship with advanced technologies and a stealthy design that will reduce its visibility on enemy radars. The warship bears the name of the late Adm. Elmo ìBudî Zumwalt, who became the...
 
 
Navy photograph by Seamn Edward Guttierrez III

Russian aircraft flies near U.S. Navy ship in Black Sea

Navy photograph by Seamn Edward Guttierrez III Sailors man the rails as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook arrives at Naval Station Rota, Spain, Feb. 11, 2014. Donald Cook is the first of four Arle...
 

 

45th Space Wing launches NRO Satellite on board Atlas V

The 45th Space Wing successfully launched a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 1:45 p.m. April 10 carrying a classified national security payload. The payload was designed and built by the National Reconnaissance Office. “I am proud of the persistence and focus of the...
 
 

U.S. Air Force selects Cubic for Moroccan P5 air combat training system

Cubic Defense Systems, a subsidiary of Cubic Corporation announced April 11 it has been awarded a contract valued at more than $5 million from the U.S. Air Force to supply its P5 Combat Training System to the Moroccan Air Force. Morocco will join the United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, along with a...
 
 
Lockheed Martin photograph

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft powers through first integrated system testing

Lockheed Martin photograph Engineers in the Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, perform avionics testing on the Orion spacecraft being prepared for its first trip to space later this ye...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>